Alphen, the Netherlands. 25 May. Tahar Ben Jelloun wrote that Egypt has suffered more ordeals than other countries to get where it is. That may or may not be true but to see the enthusiasm of Egyptians as they queue in their millions to vote is joyous. For the first time in five thousand years and some fifteen months after Hosni Mubarak was ousted Egyptians get to choose their leader. Some fifty million people are eligible to vote for thirteen candidates with a run-off scheduled for 16 and 17 June in the event no candidate manages to get more than 50% of the vote.
For all the West’s focus on Iran, and this week saw but the latest round of ‘5+1’ talks in an effort to come to some accommodation with Tehran over its nuclear ambitions, the future of Egypt is THE strategic question for the Middle East and much of the world beyond.
It could of course all go wrong. Even though the Army leadership in the form of the Military Council says it will hand over power to civilian leaders in June it still seems to believe it can maintain an undue influence over the political process. Like all new democracies there is always the danger of ‘one man, one vote, once’. There will no doubt be numerous cases of voting irregularities from people denied a vote to stuffed ballot boxes. Those dangers are ever present.
There is also the danger that all new democracies face; that the defeated will not accept the judgement of the people at the ballot box. Such fears are heightened by the sheer range of opinion contesting the election. Those standing for the office of president match Islamists against secularists, and revolutionaries against Mubarak loyalists. The institutions of the Egyptian state never strong under Mubarak (apart from the Army) will doubtless be tested in the years to come.
For the West this is one of those tricky moments when it has to face up to the consequence of its own rhetoric. The fact of Egyptian democracy represents a victory for the idea of democracy and should help put to bed the ridiculous notion that Arabs neither ‘get’ nor aspire to democracy. And yet the outcome might lead to an uncomfortable reality for the West – a legitimate and legitimised Islamist regime leading the largest Arab state. That government may make choices the West will find hard to swallow. What relationship will the new Cairo seek with Iran? What relationship will it seek with the Gulf States and Saudia Arabia? What influence will the new regime seek in the troubled lands of the Maghreb? What role will Egypt seek in Syria’s tragedy? What relationship will Cairo seek with the West? Above all, what relationship will Cairo seek with the Palestinians and by extension with Israel? The choices the new Cairo makes could well decide the fate of the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin at least as much as Iran’s nuclear ambitions or, indeed, the Euro crisis. Peace itself could be at stake in the choices Egyptians are now making.
Whoever takes the presidency, be it the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in the form of Mohammed Mursi or the former foreign minister and Arab League head Amr Moussa these questions will remain acute. However, perhaps even more important than questions of foreign orientation will be the ongoing search for a just and durable political settlement that can help embed democracy, ensure that future handovers of power are peaceful and legitimate and that checks and balances are sufficiently robust to prevent the abuse of power that was all too evident during Mubarak’s grip on power. That more than anything will ensure a stable, balanced Egypt around which the Middle East will pivot.
Former Chinese Premier Cho En Lai when asked in the 1960s what he thought about the French Revolution of 1789 said that it was too early too tell. Egyptian democracy and the revolution that spawned it is still in its infancy. The challenge for the West will be to find a way to nurture democracy without giving the impression that it harbours neo-colonial ambitions. Egyptians are ever sensitive to the still recent experience of British rule and the Mandate established in the interbellum.
However, all these critical questions are for the future. For the moment I am simply going to savour the moment and humbly express my joy at watching millions of Egyptians execute and celebrate their democratic right at the ballot box.
It is the joy of democracy.